Rock 'n' Rangoon

In a land ruled with iron hand by a repressive military regime, a budding music scene attracts droves of Levis-loving, leather-clad head bangers. Even in this overbearing atmosphere, rock 'n' roll is winning over the sons and daughters of the junta bosses

By Ron Gluckman / Rangoon, Burma

"I'VE GOT A GUITAR AND I PLAY REAL FAST," says the teen in the Ramones T-shirt. Three earrings poke through one lobe, and a chain dangles from his pierced nose. "I want to be a big star," he adds, hopping off his motor cycle. "You know, like James Dean."

Teen dreams and James Dean are part of pop culture around the globe. But finding those same youth archetypes here, in Rangoon, still rates a surprise. So far, its primarily a phenomenon of privilege, and maybe even protection. Many of Burma's new Generation X are the sons and daughters of military leaders running this repressive regime. The rest are offspring of businessmen who are making a bundle selling black-market goods to an embargo-weary wealthy class that is sick of tatty goods from China.

Years ago, rock 'n' roll punched a hole in the Iron Curtain. Will it do the same for Burma? On the surface, at least, some Burmese have already joined the outside world. Fashion-piercing victim Tur Thura Heir is the leader of one pack of rebellious rockers who ride expensive scooters, dress in boutique grunge gear, and listen to western recordings, which were banned as recently as two years ago by Burma.

Decades of isolation hasn’t worn too badly on these youngsters. They buy Levi’s jeans for US$50-100, and heavy metal bangles from shops like Metal Zone. Shirts bearing the image of rockers Aerosmith, Iron Maiden and Cinderella are the rage in Rangoon. But trend-setters eschew cheap Chinese prints that sell for US$3-6, and buy authentic American imports for US$25 - about a month’s wage for most workers.

"We like to listen to music and ride our bikes," says Tur, who is the most polite punk rocker imaginable. Lead guitarist and singer with a garage band called Win Nyien (Nice Ghost), he is devoutly Buddhist, and neither drinks nor smokes.

Nightclubs are also out of the question. There are none anywhere in Burma, except for karaoke clubs catering to businessmen from Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. They not only provide the investment in infrastructure and tourism that keeps Rangoon’s brutal military regime afloat, but also the televisions, stereos and other consumer goods favored by the fledgling youth culture that is taking its first baby steps in Burma.

Promiscuity remains rare around Rangoon, although sex aids are now sold at some stands around the sacred Sule Pagoda. Shops in medium-sized cities, like Myitkyina, don’t even carry condoms, which must be bought from black market vendors.

Hanging out is itself a rather racy activity in Rangoon, after years of martial law. Tur and his pals meet girls at weekend parties where smoking and flirting take a backseat to serious scrutiny of the latest western recordings. "We want to keep up," he says.

Information isn’t easy to come by in Burma. Universities have reopened behind barbed wire, but student groups are still reeling from the vicious military crackdown of the late 1980s. Yet political talk is remarkably unrestrained at the teashops where young people meet, eat, drink and listen to music.

Tur and his pals make snide remarks about the military junta. But, really, they are more interested in knowing what kind of leather jacket is considered the coolest in London. And, most importantly, why that guy from Nirvanna killed himself.

Meanwhile, loud rock pounds from speakers at an outdoor teahouse around the corner from the huge United States embassy. The music is mainly Burmese versions of western hits. Songs by Cinderella, Bryan Adams and Van Halen are especially popular. Yet, Burma’s utterly eclectic pop scene has recently been enlivened by two different versions of "Can’t Find My Way Home," a single for Blind Faith back in the 1960s.

One version is by Iron Cross, undoubtedly Burma’s hottest band. Iron Cross posters can be seen everywhere, in beauty shops, by street corners, and on huge billboards over the music stores that line bustling Barr Street. This is Rangoon’s Street of Dreams, where anyone can buy music, TVs or videos, provided they have the cash.

Top brands sell at prices that beat shopping meccas like Hong Kong and Singapore. One shop owner says he sells 100 Tvs and VCRs each month, with best-selling Toshiba Blackstripe TVs and JVC videos going for about US$400 each. "We can get anything now," boasts the owner of Kumodedra Recording. "Since 1992, getting goods has been no problem. Singapore sends us everything."

Cassettes sell for US$1-$1.50 at music shops like Excellence, Wave and Morning Star. At Music World, the latest western tapes are illegally reproduced under the company’s own brazen logo. Hits by Whitney Houston and AC/DC are churned out on five high-speed duplicators, each capable of recording five tapes in minutes.

Metal Zone is the newest addition to this remarkable rock alley, where big posters of bands and movie stars are painted on the sides of buildings. The storefront is brick red, and there’s a chilling plaster skull grinning above cross bone-style guitars in front.

Metal Zone targets an upscale audience, offering pirate tapes recorded on state-of-the art Denon equipment, imported from Singapore, and compact discs for $25.

"The customers are mainly young people, mostly under 20 years old," says owner Zau Win, who started selling jeans, posters and rock jewelry at Rangoon’s Bogyoke Market. From black market goods, he moved to quality gear, including expensive leather. "Kids are willing to spend," he says.

"They don’t just want Levis, they want 501s. Only a few, a very small percentage of the people here can afford this, but those that can are buying." He adds, "It’s a new business. Nothing like this would have been allowed just a couple years ago."

Indeed, an undeniable sense of anxiety underscores the Burmese music scene. Zaw Win Thut, the country’s biggest rock singer, was confined to folk songs a few years ago. Now, he headlines concerts that draw 20,000 people - when they are allowed. Zaw was only able to release his first hard rock recording last year, with new band Emperor.

All local recordings must still be approved by the Ministry of Culture. "They listen to the tapes and may censor some songs because of considerations of culture, politics or the words," says Metal Zone’s Win. "You really have to be careful."

Restraint and rock make strange bedfellows. Lay Phyu, the lead singer of Iron Cross, can often be seen strolling down Barr Street. Understandable, since there nowhere else for Burmese rockers to hang out. With hair tumbling down to his blue jeans, he’s easy to spot.

Yet he declines to pose for pictures or talk with visiting reporters. In Burma, where the rock scene simmers beneath the surface, it’s still considered cool to be cautious.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, which ran this story in March 1995. At that point in time, Rangoon's underground rock scene had finally left behind its infatuation with the Carpenters (then the Number 1 band in Laos) and moved on to new heroes Credence Clearwater Revival and Nirvana. As a rock critic in the 1970s, Mr Gluckman often has a delightful dose of déjà vu in parts of Southeast Asia, when the lights seem to have gone out about 1976. For a sampling of his other stories about Burma, please click upon Aung San Suu Kyi, Suu Kyi, Tracking Myanmar, Where have all the opium poppies gone, Down and Up in Myanmar or Visit Myanmar?

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